I believe you but you don’t know what you’re saying? — Gorgias by Plato

I am confused by a very simple point in Plato’s Gorgias.

If Gorgias claims that what oratory is is simply being able to persuade a person or crowd without knowledge that he is knowledgable in something he actually isn’t, then what does he use to persuade the crowd? I’m sure the lengthy style of speech Polus gives when trying to answer Socrates gives an idea of how he does it, but then this brings me to a similar conclusion to what Socrates said: he isn’t really answering the question, just making it sound nice and grand. In the end, it’s kind of like a bluff… no?

What kind of persuasion would it be if the basis of it is simply on the words of one person without knowledge? To a person lacking knowledge, it would sound perfectly fine and seem rational, I presume, as long as someone seems to knows what they’re talking about, but it does not provide any solid ground for a claim. This leads me to question how much we actually trust other people’s words, and how much we believe what we hear. People lacking knowledge seem to be blindingly trusting in what they hear from the orator, because he appears to be knowledgable, at least in how Plato portrays the unintelligent population. Does this not mean that whoever speaks persuasively can move those lacking knowledge, even if it may be completely false and inaccurate? I guess so, but I think this also downplays humanity’s intelligence and complexity in someways, as I do not think it is as simple as Socrates rationalizes that “a man who has learned what’s just [is] a just man too” (pg, 19, 460b)

Then again, maybe what Plato portrays is true. Words can move people, as demonstrated by many great historic speeches (Martin Luther King, Hitler, etc). But do people believe in these words simply because it aligns with their motivations and goals, or is it maybe because the speaker has a certain charisma? Successful speakers certainly seem to have both, however, what I’m trying to question is how much can we believe a person based on their words without knowledge or facts backing it up? Or, as Socrates describes, how much can people be swayed by “conviction – persuasion” as opposed to “teaching – persuasion”? Doesn’t providing evidence and teaching with facts and knowledge lead to a more solidified and grounded claim? Am I just veering towards rationalism in regards to knowledge? Maybe? Regardless, given our progress in technology and availability of information, it is hard to imagine an argument or persuasive speech without at least a hint of factual evidence to support an argument. Perhaps this is just my instilled process of thinking and therefore cannot understand a “conviction – persuasion” Socrates and Gorgias is referring to.

Either way, I would like to end this post by claiming this: I don’t really have anything to back up what I’m saying.

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  1. Nice ending, Cherie! Excellent questions. It seems to me that people can be persuaded by someone who claims to have knowledge, who speaks as if they have evidence supporting their claims, but who really doesn’t. And I would imagine that such a thing could happen fairly often. Imagine someone who is a trusted authority figure in a certain area, say maybe someone who has reputation for being knowledgeable in medicine–if that person were to give a persuasive speech about the value of some new kind of medical treatment, it might be the case that many people would just believe her because of her reputation. And plus, medical research literature is both difficult to understand for those of us not trained in the field, and also sometimes hard to get without paying fees to download the articles!

    I think of the ‘conviction-persuasion’ as being a process by which orators just try to convince people of something the orator him/herself doesn’t have knowledge of, but to do so well they’d need to sound as if they do, it seems to me. And Socrates says on p. 18, 459c, that oratory doesn’t have to have knowledge of what is being spoken about, but just needs to have “a persuasion device in order to make itself appear to those who don’t have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually have it.” So I think orators do have to at least pretend to have knowledge to do conviction-persuasion well!

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